RUSSIA REPORTEDLY SEIZES A UKRAINIAN MILITARY BASE, BEGINS AIR DRILLS IN CRIMEA

FoxNews on March 7, 2014, reported that armed men believed to be Russian seized a Ukrainian military base in Crimea, triggering a standoff but no gunfire in the latest incident of escalating tension in the flashpoint peninsula. Excerpts below:

The move followed reports earlier in the day that Russia had begun large-scale air defense drills.

Witnesses say Russian troops broke through the gate of a missile defense base with a military vehicle, trying to break into a command post, but no shots were fired, Interfax Ukraine reported.

A Ukrainian military official, Vladislav Seleznyov, told Reuters the armed men took over the base without any shooting and no one appeared hurt. Another Ukrainian official told Reuters at the post that he was now mediating between Ukrainian forces and the armed group inside.

About 100 Ukrainian troops are stationed at the base in Sevastopol, Interfax reported, citing a duty officer and Ukraine’s defense ministry. [Stun grenades were used].The Ukrainians barricaded themselves inside one of their barracks, and their commander began negotiations, Interfax said.

Earlier on March 7, there were reports Russia had begun large-scale air defense drills as tensions remained high over the fate of Crimea.

Roughly 3,500 troops and more than 1,000 units of military hardware will be hosted for about a month in Kapustin Yar, some 280 miles east of the Ukrainian border. The exercise by Russia’s Western Military District, according to a report from RIA Novosti, will culminate with live-firing drills and deployment of air defense systems.

Pentagon officials confirmed the report to Fox News based on the latest intelligence available to U.S. officials. An estimated 20,000 Russian troops are now in Crimea, including roughly 15,000 that were stationed at its naval base in Sevastapol, Ukraine.

The Russian parliament has scrambled to introduce legislation that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. According to current constitutional law, Russia can only annex foreign territory by an agreement “initiated … by the given foreign government.” Because Crimea is still legally Ukrainian territory, that would entail signing an agreement with new authorities in Kiev, who have condemned Russian moves in the region.

New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week.

If the new bill is passed, Crimea would be the first territory to officially join Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from the Caucasus nation of Georgia after a brief 2008 war with Russia, have been recognized as independent by Moscow, but there have been few serious moves to enable them to join Russia.

Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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